In the first part of NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION‘s story about Berlin-based electronic label SUOL we already learned quite a few interesting facts about the way label owners Chi-Thien Nguyen and John Muder are running their little family. Their soulful house music sounds aren’t inclined to stick in specific categories. It’s more like they dedicate themselves to the groove and passion of the music, with a special degree of loyalty. SUOL are a gang of friends, constantly supporting each other. You might not gain admission to the inner circle quite easily but once you’re in, you can rely on each and everyone.
During our little chat with Nguyen and Muder aka CHOPSTICK AND JOHNJON, avoided describing the way they run their label as anything close to a “strategy.” Is it that easy to just let things happen? It may also be that the German capital offers great fertile soil for such creative spirit. Although the city is known as Europe’s capital for techno and club music, it’s not a necessity for them to be successful. As Muder points out: “We’re not an active part anymore of the ‘scene’ I think. We’re a label and sometimes we throw a party, but we would do that in another city as well.”
But you can’t deny the special reputation of Berlin. Especially since you guys are playing DJ-sets all over the world.
J: We’ve been to so many great cities and talked with the people who live there and everybody was like ‘Oh, yeah, I would move immediately to Berlin.’ And I was just ‘What? You’ve got it way nicer here.” (laughs)
They don’t want to downplay the hype surrounding Berlin, but they are taking advantage of it whenever they play somewhere else. And has Nguyen also opines: “The Berlin hype is still there, especially the external perception.” Fellow producer and DJ TILL VON SEIN seems to wonder about that, when he adds: “You might sometimes think ‘Man, it’s been ten years since it first started. Why do people still care?’” before he starts laughing along.
TILL VON SEIN also offers a kind of varied perspective on the whole hype as he looks back on its origins: “It all happened with this whole ‘minimal techno’ hype back in 2005 where you had this huge label explosion. So many news artists which were so arbitrary and easy to replace. There were just not enough characters.” It’s been characters like SVEN VÄTH and DJs like HELL who once showed him a different way of making your way in the game. And TILL clearly senses a lack of this direction as he continues: “It’s just an overkill. Everybody wants a piece of the cake but most of them won’t work enough to get there. Although Berlin is making it quite easy for such people. There are so many clubs and you can basically play everyday somewhere, getting your 150 Euros each night and that’s it. And maybe there’s a lack of urgency within that comfortable position.”
“Including these old soul and funk sounds into contemporary dance music is what drives me”
As artists and label bosses, you have to stay hungry and you have to be open-minded for whatever the future might bring. SUOL are still a small label, despite having big player FRITZ KALKBRENNERon board, and they would like to keep it that way. Although they seem to be open for what’s next. It looks like the typical DJ/producer-combination is not enough for them anymore. Recent additions to the roster include uprising electronic producer and soul singer MAGGY who brings some female vibes to the man club and CHASING KURT, the first actual band on the label. CHASING KURT’s enjoyable debut record From The Inside and its soulful synthpop fit perfectly to SUOL , but add some new elements as well. In the future anything seems possible, maybe even signing the next FRANK OCEAN. Muder laughs: “Well, if we get him we would probably debate if we have what it takes to get him as an artist.” But basically he and Nguyen are open to anything: “If it works well together, we’ll do it. Whatever we like we try to put out. And when it’s just a guy with a guitar we really love we would do it as well. Especially when we think we can help him.”
You can’t deny that there is certain demand for the kind of dance music SUOL provide. Adding an organic note to the electronic beats and basslines becomes important again. Ever since French robots DAFT PUNK released their buzzing comeback album Random Access Memories this spring, there has been a stronger focus again on soul and funk, something that separates the songs from the cold synthetic origins of rave culture. CHOPSTICK AND JOHNJON agree on this as Muder addresses the need of the people: “Definitely. You can talk with everybody – well, at least if they are over 25 – and everybody got a certain connection to soul music, r’n'b or hip hop. And I mean all the old school stuff.” And maybe you connect past and present via a new sound. Chi-Thien Nguyen: “Including these old soul and funk sounds into contemporary dance music is what drives me.”
The artists themselves were influenced by all different kind of styles and records. The first record that TILL VON SEIN bought was RUN DMC’s 1986 masterpiece Raising Hell while Nguyen remembers a bunch of oldschool rave records that got him into club music: “It was in the early 90s and a time when I was still listening to a lot of hip hop. And my first club records really have been oldschool releases. Hard house, B-Productions, Bonzai Records or Noom Records. Those were the first I bought and tried to use in a DJ-context.” But we all can agree on MICHAEL JACKSON as an influence? “Michael Jackson records? I got them all.” he adds with a big laugh, “But the first one I really remember was his “Bad” album. “
As stated previously, these guys are deeply relaxed, good friends and hard workers. They’ve come a long way and it doesn’t look as if there is an end to the SUOL story. Is there a specific and objective way to name the secret of success? Stick to your guns, work hard and play even harder? Probably never losing focus and also overcoming the dark times with a large amount of hope. “There were times when we’ve been living on a very, very low level in the early days.” explains Muder, “We never gave up hope. We went through it, never made a lot of compromises. It gets harder when you have to make compromises. The long breath really helps.” “It’s hard work and the power of endurance” as Nguyen adds.
So what about hope and passion in the end? JOHNJON: “One thing can’t exist without the other. Passion is a basic requirement when you’re making music. And you always need to have hope that you can live from it one day.” These guys might still not be extreme rich superstar DJs, that is for sure. But in the end – does it even matter? Following your dreams by working hard for them, never losing the focus and still keeping the fun – sounds easy but probably isn’t. Sticking through this demands a lot of bravery and it’s always nice to see good people succeeding in it. SUOL‘s concept might not offer the solution for a struggling music industry but they offer a lot of hope, passion and love. And that’s something we all can rely to, no matter which kind of music.